Inspired by the true story of Bob Cook, a young cancer victim, “Ocean Tribe,” the visually striking feature debut of writer-director Will Geiger, is a genre film with a twist: a serio-comic exploration of male camaraderie that, despite its death motif, is uplifting and exhilarating. Prospects for theatrical release are solid for a highly accomplished road movie whose attractive ensemble — and spectacular surfing scenes — compensate for a rather thin and familiar story.
In its iconography, narrative structure and thematic concerns, “Ocean Tribe” is a well-crafted male-buddy genre item. Geiger follows the conventions of the road-movie format, but also adds something new: a mystical, often enchanting ambience based on parallels drawn between a pod of dolphins and a close-knit clique of friends.
In voiceover narration that sets the tone of the film, protagonist Noah (Gregg Rainwater) tells of a pod of dolphins that spent three days swimming around a dying member, trying to keep it afloat by taking turns pushing it back to the surface for air until finally the wild ocean had its way.
As story begins, Bobby (Vaughn Roberts) is in a hospital dying of leukemia. His friends try to talk him into a surfing trip to Mexico, for the sake of the good old days, but to no avail. Undeterred, they kidnap him, making sure that he has sufficient medical supplies for the duration of the journey. Out of a sense of solidarity with their pal, who’s now bald, they all shave their heads, despite objections from handsome Lance (Mark Matheisen) that it would damage his acting career.
The quintet hits the road in the huge, wildly painted Oldsmobile ambulance they had used as a surfwagon in high school. From then on, story chronicles the usual male-bonding rituals: heavy drinking, arguments about past (and present) misunderstandings, physical wrestling and emotional reconciliations and, above all, surfing, which serves as a unifying rite overcoming all other obstacles.
“Ocean Tribe” is a celebration of the kind of unconditional friendship that surpasses relationships with women in scope and intimacy. Geiger is sensitive enough to realize that although Bobby is the one facing death, all four of his friends are dealing with major life crises. Noah, who married a Bosnian wife to give her a green card but then fell in love with her, is not sure whether he’s ready to be a father; Lance is an ambitious actor but so far has appeared only in “erotic” movies; and Schwartz (Robert Caso) is a tormented medical student, “good with books, but squeamish about blood and guts.”
Narrative gets soft and predictable as it goes along, turning into a reaffirmation of the men’s faith in themselves and in their futures; in addition, ending is too pat and symmetrical. Nonetheless, Geiger, who acquits himself better as helmer than scripter, shows a measure of good taste in modulating his yarn and admirable facility in coaxing uniformly good performances from his appealing thesps.
Noah’s lyrical words, set over the graceful imagery of dolphins swimming in the ocean and accompanied by the 16th-century choral piece “Dum Transisset Sabbatum,” lend the film an aura of beauty and transcendental mysticism. Shot entirely on location, in California’s Bodega Bay and Mexico’s Baja and Todos Santos Island, low-budgeter features first-rate production values across the board, with special kudos to Harris Done’s superlative lensing and Jeremy Kasten’s seamless editing.